What do samosas, mozzarella sticks, disco egg rolls and coconut crab cakes have in common? As of 2018, they’re all kosher.
Yes, you read correctly. Each of these dishes is vegan and kosher.
Ohev Shalom – The National Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Washington, DC, set out last year on a seemingly quixotic quest to answer the call of its congregation for high-quality, kosher eats around the District.
Until very recently, kosher restaurants were as easy to find as oases in the Negev. Ohev Shalom clergy Maharat Ruth Friedman and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld have teamed up to change all of that.
Friedman and Herzfeld, together with other volunteers from the synagogue, founded DC Kosher, an Orthodox kashrut organization, in early 2018. Their mission: to certify vegan and vegetarian restaurants “in order to help individuals more easily observe the kosher dietary laws,” said Herzfeld. “We’ve seen nothing but enthusiasm from our congregants, as well as the DC community.”
Though the outfit launched last year, Rabbi Herzfeld has previous kashrut supervision experience and knowledge, having initiated kashrut supervision for Soupergirl more than five years ago, as well as for other kitchens and productions. He also notes that he’s received guidance from national leaders within the kosher certification community.
Herzfeld rightly noted that finding kosher eateries in Washington, DC, has been a challenge. The Jewish community was simply in need of more kosher options. Yet many establishments that have had the potential to become kosher are small businesses, “and the process can be onerous,” he said. But DC Kosher is free.
“We view this as a service to the community. We are excited to see that restaurants are willing to engage with us, and that shouldn’t be an extra cost,” he explained.
Friedman, for her part, has been a vegetarian for 25 years, and explains that vegetarian, and especially vegan restaurants, demonstrate similar passion for their craft and sourcing as do kosher restaurants.
She shared, “These places are already investigating ingredients and understand the challenging of cross-contamination. Vegan and kosher speak similar languages.” She went on to describe that certifying meat and dairy is quite complicated, but restaurants that are vegan or only serve small amounts of certain types of cheese allow for more flexibility.
The process, however, is far from simple. First, she and Rabbi Herzfeld visit the restaurant, making sure to follow standards similar to other certifications. They examine how the food is processed, stored, prepared and cooked, and determine the possibility of making the necessary changes. They ensure that all products served and all cookware used are kosher, and all wine is mevushal (kosher through a process of cooking). Once these changes are made (swapping out vinegars and wines for their kosher counterparts, for example), volunteer mashgichim (kashrut supervisors) later conduct random checks to ensure adherence to protocol.
As for the purveyors of these mozzarella sticks and “crab” egg rolls, they are “nothing but thrilled to get their name out to a new population they haven’t reached,” says Friedman.
Shouk, an Israeli concept fast-casual spot downtown, is one of these.
Owner Ran Nussbacher said that Shouk has “always toyed with the idea of being kosher, given that we are 100% plant based. We’ve had many observant Jews as customers already, and from a business perspective, we want to be acceptable to as large of an audience as possible. We have vested interest in exposing the larger community to plant-based food, and it’s simply wonderful to remove barriers.”
The number of kosher restaurants around the city has blossomed to more than a dozen, including Shouk, Indian Delight, Evolve Restaurant and Khepra’s Raw Food Juice Bar; Maryland and Virginia count several as well. Local vegan cracklings purveyor Snacklins also holds a DC Kosher certification.
Pow Pow, on the H Street Corridor, is another participant in DC Kosher. The quirky shop serves offbeat, creative options like the Natalie Porkman bowl (sweet-and-sour seitan, tomato, pineapple and bell pepper set over salad and rice).
Pow Pow’s enthusiastic “powner” Margaux Riccio said that she was “thrilled to be able offer another dining option to customers. We have nothing but gratitude for the DC Kosher program for allowing us to serve the Jewish community.’
“Rabbi Shmuel has been extremely supportive of what we are trying to do here—his energy is inspiring.”
As for their detractors, there are few. A kosher publication rejected that Friedman, as a woman, could head such an organization.
But Friedman and Herzfeld refute this. “Any time you create change, there are people who challenge and question, but that’s the responsibility that comes along with this work, and our mission does not focus on that. Those who understand us as possessing the knowledge and leadership will take part in our work.”
“Our goal,” Herzfeld said, “is to provide a service to the community, who support us and our mission, and who look to us for guidance.”
The DC Kosher team plans to double the number of restaurants certified as kosher by this time next year, though they’re keeping mum on the specifics.
The work, however, has been able to speak for itself.
“We’ve received the most overwhelming support. Congregants and people from around the area are excited and appreciative. I feel like in my career in the rabbinate, this is the thing that people have appreciated the most,” Herzfeld stated.
Top photo (from left): Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, Pow Pow owner Margaux Riccio and Maharat Ruth Friedman